In May of this year a Philadelphia couple was charged with the murder of their 8 month old son. He died of pneumonia, dehydration, and strep. All easily treated with antibiotics. But he was not treated. Rather, his parents, following the teachings of their church, the First Century Gospel Church, placed their trust solely in prayer. This was not the first son they lost. In 2009, another son, a 2 year old, died of bacterial pneumonia after the couple again relied solely on prayer when he was suffering from congestion and a sore throat. This family is not from some remote backwater. They live within a mile of the church I pastor, in a city with medical care easily available.
From a perusal of the church’s website and the posted sermons, along with the site of the Nigerian branch of the church, which includes a somewhat longer and more helpful statement of faith, the church believes that believers are called to put their full faith and trust in God alone. This is done by not trusting in anything else other than God. Those things we might trust in, which include medical care, insurance policies, and even seatbelts and safety devices, are idols that lead us away from God.
“If we are depending on, or have it hidden in our heart to depend on, anything, anyone, any plan, pill, procedure, or power other than the living God alone for what we need in life— spiritually, physically, financially, and every other faith issue, it is idolatry and must be corrected” (1).
“The church’s foundation belief is to trust in and depend on God to control every fact of our life; that includes the control of every person we meet with in the course of a day. The church belives that no human effort be used to manipulate or control the actions of others to our advantage or for our benefit.
“Another belief is to trust God for protection from accidents, dangers, and from any other physical harm or injury. We do not believe in the use of seat-belts and other safety devices that are designed to protect a person in the event of an accident. Our trust is totally in God to be protected from such incidents in the first place, and it is our belief that to use any type of safety device, is to be disloyal to God and to be disobedient to His will.” (2)
Of course, this is just a recent case of something that happens repeatedly, although not terribly often, in the US. “Perhaps a dozen children from faith-healing churches die without receiving medical care each year in the United States, but no one really knows the true number, said Shawn Francis Peters, who wrote the 2007 book ‘When Prayer Fails: Faith Healing, Children, and the Law.'” (3)
Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses also frown on medical care, although do not always forbid it. To be fair, First Century doesn’t forbid it either, but it is a sign of a lack of faith and zeal to seek medical care.
There are a lot of things we can say about this case. It touches on matters of church and state, the justice system, public welfare departments tasked with watching over children, and freedom of religion. We can analyze it theologically and Biblically. But what does the history of the Church suggest about the issue of whether Christians should use modern medical technology or rely solely on prayer? How has the Church wrestled with this in the past? What do we see the real First Century Christians doing in this regard?
In my next post we will explore that history. A third post will draw some conclusions for how we practice ministry in light of all this.
1 from the message “The Object of God’s Truth”, http://fcgchurch.org/Messages/Pages/The%20Object%20of%20God’s%20Truth.html
2 from a Statement of Faith of the Nigerian branch, http://www.fcgchurchnigeria.com/Fcgchurch_statement.php
3 Mensah M. Dean, “First, Do No Harm: Prayer or Medicine”, Philly.com, 12/7/2010, http://articles.philly.com/2010-12-07/news/25293479_1_faith-healing-faith-tabernacle-congregation-first-century-gospel-church